This past weekend, after more than seventeen days of flames blazing through 153,000 acres of land, the Camp Fire in Butte County was officially declared as contained.
Down South, more than 100,000 acres were burned in the Woolsey and Hill Fires raging through Malibu, Ventura, and surrounding areas. With each year bringing greater wildfire and drought, more fear and frenzy, the Golden State can, at times, appear to have lost an insuperable amount of luster. If paradise burns, does it then cease to be paradise? Perhaps we have been kidding ourselves with this notion of westward perfection; how long before it’s just wasteland?
I’d argue, however, that any dream worth its salt should be put up for review every once in a while. Lay the cards on the table and decide, is it worth it? Generations of Californians have had to ask themselves this same question. They asked after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Then Loma Prieta in 1989. The mudslides of 2005. Not to mention the unnatural disasters we’ve self-inflicted: political riots, social uprisings, counterculture radicalism.
Daughter of the Wasteland herself, Eve Babitz once wrote an essay called “Expensive Regrets” in which she explained that during the Watts Riots of 1965, she was holed up in the Chateau Marmont with a snack of a Brazilian lover. The sex was so good she was oblivious to the city burning. She literally thought the smell of ash just a poetic byproduct of the heat burning off from her body and his.
I’d like to think we all had an equally diverting distraction from the fires – happily ignorant and unaffected. I hope you had better luck than I did on this front.
Living here, be it in the north or south or the middle ground, you accept that fires and earthquakes and mudslides and heatwaves and droughts will be apart of your life. It’s a deal you strike. In exchange, you receive a Mediterranean climate and pulsating cities, headlands and hiking, lush valleys and brittle gold hills. You’ll get a sense of liberality that enables all kinds of kinds to breathe easier, despite the smoke, despite the smog. You will be able to ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, and dine over soul food at night while the sun goes beautifully down.
Remember this. And during this time of mourning as the literal and metaphorical smoke clears, I hope we are there for our fellow Californians in a big and beautiful way. I hope we help them pick up this dream and wipe off the soot, and somehow rebuild the lives that were decimated.
I’m here for all of it. Until it’s my turn to burn out. From California to California.
// Feature photo by Marcus Kauffman.